Michael Dowd

An executive discusses rad-hard microelectronics in aerospace projects.

For what platforms has Maxwell Technologies delivered solutions?

Maxwell has been providing components and computers to space projects for more than 20 years. Recent high-profile projects include: Gaia and Galileo (Europe), GLONASS (Russia), and Mars rovers Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity (U.S.).

What is unique about Gaia?

The European Space Agency's Gaia satellite will survey more than 1 billion stars and other celestial bodies during its five-year mission [helping] to create a 3D map of the Milky Way galaxy. Gaia was developed by European aerospace companies with Airbus Defense and Space's France-based unit (formerly Astrium) serving as the prime contractor and payload provider. Maxwell supplied SCS750 single-board computers to Airbus Defense and Space's United Kingdom-based unit, which provided Gaia's video processing units (VPUs).

What were the requirements, and what set your solution apart?

The SCS750 was the only single-board computer available combining the right levels of processing power, radiation performance, and technological maturity.

High-performance processing solutions in space typically rely on one-time programmable components, such as field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) or application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs). Both are extremely fast but cannot be changed once programmed. Gaia wanted the ability to change the VPUs' video-processing algorithm during ground-based development and flight thus making a system heavily dependent on FPGAs or ASICs undesirable.

On the other hand, traditional space-level computers, while flexible, did not provide enough computing horsepower for Gaia. Traditional space-level computers run anywhere from 40 to 300 million instructions per section (mips), which was not enough processing power to achieve Gaia's scientific goals.

Gaia's video processing algorithms were implemented in both hardware and software. Each VPU utilizes FPGAs to identify and select objects of interest on the focal plane array. A SCS750 running at 1,000 mips continues tracking and collecting data about an object as it continues moving across the focal plane array.

What are the challenges to engineering electronics for space?

The main challenge of fielding a space-qualified system is radiation performance-total ionizing dose, single-event upset, and single-event latch-up-which, in turn, leads to a host of other challenges. Unlike commercial designers who can pick any part they find on the Web, space designers must restrict component choices to a small subset of approved components. This subset is skewed toward older technologies leading to systems consuming more power and providing less performance compared to terrestrial equivalents. Maxwell's strategy is geared toward turning this paradigm on its head.


NAME: Michael Dowd
TITLE: Senior strategic account manager
CO.: Maxwell Technologies
ROLE: Maker of radiation-hardened microelectronic components and systems, as well as energy storage and power delivery solutions.
CONTACT: www.maxwell.com

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